Iowans rally for felon voting rights

A group of banner-waving Iowans converged on the Statehouse rotunda in February to rally for legislation that would restore voting eligibility to tens of thousands of Iowans who cannot vote because of a felony conviction. Gov. Kim Reynolds has promised to issue an executive order restoring felon voting rights before the Nov. 3 elections.

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Kim Reynolds

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks a news conference at the Statehouse on June 2 in Des Moines.

As they await Gov. Kim Reynolds’ promised executive order on restoring felon voting rights, key Iowa legislators doubt she’ll have the last word on the issue.

“We’re planning to make sure that this is not the end of the conversation,” said Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, a Des Moines Democrat who has met with the Republican governor on the matter.

He’s encouraged by Reynolds’ willingness to take action, but like others — both Democrats and Republicans — Abdul-Samad expects lawmakers will take another crack at advancing a felon voting rights restoration measure for the Iowa Constitution.

“An executive order would be for now, but there’s been a push for something more permanent in regards to adding the language to our constitution,” added Senate Judiciary Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale.

His counterpart across the rotunda, House Judiciary Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, agreed that an executive order will not settle the issue because without a constitutional amendment, a future governor could rescind Reynolds’ order.

“I would imagine that those who want felon voting rights restored to folks once they’ve served their time would want that in the constitution,” he said.

As it is now, released felons can individually petition the governor. Reynolds has said no one person should have that power, and called for a state constitutional amendment to guide the process. But lawmakers have disagreed on which felons would be eligible and when, so Reynolds said she will sign her own directive.

Fifteen years ago, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order allowing felons to vote after being released. About 115,000 felons regained voting rights as a result.

One day after succeeding Vilsack, then-Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, rescinded the order and replaced it with an appeal process.

Over the next five years, fewer than 100 felons regained the right.

For the past two years, Reynolds, who has restored voting rights for 1,129 people since taking office in 2017, has been calling for a state constitutional amendment to make the process automatic and permanent.

After that effort stalled in the final days of the Iowa Legislature’s 2020 session, Reynolds said she would take action herself.

At that time, she was meeting with Abdul-Samad and representatives of Black Lives Matter and the NAACP. It was in the second of those meetings, he said, “she told me she was going to do it by late summer, early fall.”

“And I believe she is going to do it,” Abdul-Samad added.

Since then, Reynolds has been guarded in her comments about the content of the order. Speaking earlier this month at The Family Leader leadership conference, Reynolds again committed to using an executive order to end Iowa’s distinction as the last state in the country to either not revoke the rights or to have an automatic process for restoring them.

“When someone completes their sentence, they should be able to vote again,” Reynolds said. “The right to vote is the cornerstone of being a part of society and being heard, and really successfully reentering society.”

She talked about the conversations she’s had with Iowans who have applied to have their voting rights restored.

“The stories that they share warm my heart,” she said. “From the pride of being able to cast a vote again, to wanting to share their personal story of redemption and finding God, these are people sorry for their crimes, and they’re looking to turn their lives around. And I believe I, like most of you, that they deserve a second chance.”

Legislators say they have not had conversations with the governor about the order since the end of the legislative session in mid-June.

Zaun is one of those who had discussed the issue with Reynolds, but he declined to discuss their conversation.

“I do have a sense of what she communicated to me and I do approve of what she’s doing,” he said. “I’m not trying to not tell you something, but based on what she told me, I think that it’s something that I can live with.”

Similarly, Holt isn’t surprised that the governor has reached out to him because “I know from conversations with her staff that our thought processes are similar on this.”

However, lawmakers are not of one mind on the issue. Not all of them believe every felon who completes his or her sentence should get voting rights restored.

“I think it’s absurd to give rapists and child abusers who committed a felony their voting rights back,” said House State Government Chairman Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton.

Kaufmann floor managed Senate File 2348, which Reynolds called “a sensible compromise” when she signed it. Under the bill that is not in effect yet, those convicted of murder, child endangerment resulting in the death of a minor, serious sex offenses or named on the sex offender registry, or first-degree election misconduct would not be eligible to have their voting rights restored.

That bill would be effective only if a constitutional amendment on felon voting rights is ratified by 2023 by voters. It passed 37-11 with Democrats and Republicans on both sides in the Senate, but 51-45 on a party-line vote in the House.

Although not all legislators agree with Kaufmann, a bigger sticking point may be how they define completion of a sentence.

To some, that means completing a prison term and parole. To others, completion means serving the time, including probation and parole, and also paying restitution to a victim or victim’s family.

Abdul-Samad asked the governor not to require that restitution be completed before a felon is eligible to regain the right to vote.

“We have no problem looking at a payment plan, but we don’t want the voting rights contingent on having to pay that off,” he said.

If a restitution payment plan is set up, “we could do it just like a driver’s license,” Abdul-Samad said. “If you don’t fulfill certain conditions of the driver’s license, then they’re suspended until you get straight with that.”

The discussion still could go in another direction, Holt speculated.

For the most part, the understanding has been that if voters ratify a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights, lawmakers would enact legislation, such as SF 2348, establishing eligibility and requirements. However, Holt sees a “growing concern” among his colleagues that the law could be changed by a future Legislature. Some of them believe the definition of completion of a sentence and prohibition on murders and rapists should be a constitutional amendment.

“I’ve heard from a lot of constituents who don’t think it’s a great idea to automatically restore voting rights to particular types of felons,” Holt said. “So I actually think there’s more discussion going go the other way in the years to come.

“I certainly don’t think the discussions is over,” he added.

Reynolds said as much at The Family Leader.

“I hope you’ll continue to help me push for a permanent solution,” she said. “In the meantime, I will be signing an executive order before Election Day that uses my constitutional clemency power to address this issue in the short term.”

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Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

This article originally ran on globegazette.com.

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